Albany stop was always on Johnson’s road to Beijing

Benita Johnson hadn’t been born when the first Freihofer’s Run for Women was held in 1979. As she ch
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Benita Johnson hadn’t been born when the first Freihofer’s Run for Women was held in 1979.

As she chases her third straight championship in the race this morning, she has been reborn, in a sense.

There were times this winter when she doubted she’d be able to compete at her best for her country, Australia, in the Beijing Olympic Games, but after four months away from running because of a knee injury, Johnson is in great shape, with room for improvement, as the race celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Johnson, 27, came out of last fall’s Chicago Marathon with a sore left knee — iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome, to be exact — and was forced to shut down her training from October through the end of January.

Now, she has the luxury of picking between the 10,000 meters on the track or the marathon at Beijing, a decision that will come down to how she runs in a 10k in the Czech Republic on June 12. Either way, she has fallen in love with Freihofer’s, and put it on her schedule months ago, even though this is an Olympic year, which forces runners to be a little choosier about their race dates.

“I’m really proud of the way that I’ve been able to get back on my feet and get my head around, thinking about the Olympics when I knew two months ago I was still doing swimming sessions in the pool,” Johnson said with a laugh on Friday. “You just have to be positive, and know that setbacks happen.”

Four months away from training is a serious setback leading into an Olympic year, but there’s no doubt that Johnson is the one to beat in today’s race, which has drawn a gaggle of top-notch Kenyans and Ethopians, as well as 34-year-old Kathy Butler of Great Britain, who has a 15:05.51 5,000-meter personal record.

The 5k championship will start at a new time of 9:15 a.m. at the New York State Museum. The forecast calls for showers and perhaps thunderstorms in Albany, which won’t be an issue for Johnson, who won in a downpour two years ago, and beat course record holder Asmae Leghzaoui by 10 seconds last year in 15:22.

“She came in two years ago and ran this course in a torrential downpour and beat the fastest woman on the planet, Lornah Kiplagat. I mean, outright beat her, three, four seconds,” race director George

Regan said. “She came back last year and, in sweltering heat, was four seconds off our course record. This is a woman to be reckoned with. And she’s in great shape.”

Johnson, one of five former Olympians in the race and the holder of seven Australian national records, won the Great Edinburgh Run on May 4 after having to withdraw from the London Marathon in March because she was still recovering from her injury.

As she did when she won Freihofer’s in 2006, the 2004 world cross country champion shrugged off the possibility of rain.

“I love running in the rain, so that’s not going to bother me,” she said. “The weather is never a factor. The rain just makes the course even tougher than it already is. It’s a very tough course, and that’s another reason why I come here, because I want competition from the world’s best athletes, but I also want a challenging course, because 5k is a sprint for me now.

“What it does is give me a really good hard race in the Olympic year, and that’s what I want.”

Her primary competition could come from Kenyan Millicent

Gathoni and Ethiopian Amane

Gobena, who finished first (32:49) and second (32:53), respectively, at the Bolder Boulder 10k on Monday.

The field also includes Gath­oni’s countrymates, Jane Gakunyi, a 2004 Olympian with a 15:04 5k PR, Genoveva Kigen, Evelyn Lagat, Florence Jepkosgei and Jane

Kibii.

The Ethiopian contingent includes 2004 Olympian Meskerem Legesse.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for those girls,” Johnson said. “I’m not going into the race thinking I’m going to win, all I do is think of my strategy, doing my best and if that’s good enough to win, then so be it.”

Butler was 12th in the 10k at the 2004 Olympics, and was seventh at the Carlsbad 5,000 this year.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “It’s been one of those races that, despite running on the roads in the U.S. for many years, I’ve never had the chance to do. Everyone I’ve talked to has said how it’s a great race. It’s kind of a tuneup for me for our trials for the 10,000 meters, which are in two weeks.”

The top U.S. prospect is also the hometown favorite, Queensbury High School graduate Emily

McCabe, who finished ninth last year, and is trying to work toward getting her 10k time down another minute and a half so she can hit the “A” standard and qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“I’m just pretty excited about having a good race and a good field to compete against,” she said. “I think I have a little bit more expectation this year.”

As befits the 30th anniversary, the race is celebrating several compet­itors who stand for the continued excellence of this event, including 1984 Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, who has become the de facto honorary godmother of the Freihofer’s Run.

The field will also include

97-year-old Kathryn West of Maine, a former Kinderhook resident who will walk the course, and “The Fab Five” of Linda Campbell, Denise Herman, Cynthia Kelly, Bernadette LaManna and Ellen Picotte, the only women to have run in every Freihofer’s.

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